Raising Chinese Wine's Global Profile

China's Grace Winery, started by a Hong Kong millionaire, wants to prove that Chinese wine can compete with the world's best vintages. Grace Winery has turned a once poor, provincial area into an agricultural boomtown with global aspirations. KPCC's Rob Schmitz reports.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This week, we've been reporting on California's trade mission to China led by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yesterday, we heard from a California winery that's trying to enter the Chinese market. Today, we have a story about a Chinese winery trying to do the same thing here. Rob Schmitz of KPCC reports.

ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

A thousand years ago, Chinese civilization was at what many historians consider a high point. While Europe trotted through the Dark Ages, China's Tang dynasty marked the flowering of creativity. Chinese businesswoman Judy Lesner(ph) has to stretch her mind all the way back to this age to recall a time when `Made in China' really mean something.

Ms. JUDY LESNER (CEO, Grace Vineyards): A thousand years ago, if you have something from China, it's trendy, stylish and symbol of wealth. But now `make in China' basically equal to cheap product.

SCHMITZ: And Lesner is on a mission to change that. Eight years ago, Lesner's father, a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, decided he was tired of the fact that the only good wines available to most Chinese were imported from France or Australia. He flew in a well-known wine scientist from France, picked him up at the airport and drove across the country, stopping at several points so that the scientists could collect climate data and taste the soil. After tasting plenty of Chinese soil, says Lesner, the scientist decided the ideal wine grape should be grown here in Shaanxi province in north central China.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

SCHMITZ: Eight years later, Grace Vineyard is out to show the world that China can produce a high-quality wine, one comparable to the best French wines. Vineyard manager Jung Jin Jon(ph) points out the vineyard's array of grapes from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir.

Mr. JUNG JIN JON (Manager, Grace Vineyard): (Chinese spoken) Chardonnay.

SCHMITZ: He says the effort to improve the wine starts with the growers.

Unidentified Man: (Chinese spoken)

SCHMITZ: A family of farmers shovels yellow tinted soil over their grapevines to protect them from the coming winter. None of this land belongs to the winery. It's collectively owned by groups of farmers from three surrounding villages, farmers whose ancestors grew apple trees and corn for as long as they can remember. All of this changed when Grace offered to pay the farmers far more money to grow grapes. Now Grace provides vines for more than 300 farmers and trains them how to grow high-quality wine grapes.

Almost all of China's biggest wineries pay their growers based on how many kilograms of grapes they harvest. Grace Vineyard manager Jung says this ultimately leads to farmers overwatering their grapes, which reduces the grapes' sugar level and the quality of the wine. Vineyard manager Jung says farmers at Grace are paid by quality, not quantity. They receive a full-time salary and if they're diligent, a series of bonuses.

Mr. JUNG: (Through Translator) We reward the farmers for taking care of the grapes in a manner that will produce the best quality of wine. For example, if the farmers water, fertilize and harvest the grapes at the appropriate times, they'll get extra money but only if they follow these very strict rules.

SCHMITZ: For 28-year-old farmer Jao Sun-jin(ph), the grape care and added manual labor of growing grapes is worth the energy. Jao says in a good year growing corn, his six siblings and his father used to make the equivalent of around $1,500. Now they make triple that.

Mr. JAO SUN-JIN: (Through Translator) Back when I grew corn, life was really tough, but ever since we started growing these grapes, I've made enough money to make an addition to my house. I even had enough money to get married.

SCHMITZ: Three years ago, says farmer Jao, he paid the equivalent of around $4,000 to his wife's family for her hand in marriage, a tradition that is still in practice in some parts of rural China. His house, he says, used to be made entirely of mud. He and his wife now sleep under a concrete ceiling.

Village leader Jao Yu Jung(ph) says since his farmers began growing grapes for Grace Vineyard, their average salary has doubled to just under a thousand dollars per year. That's still slightly below the average rural salary in China, but for Shaanxi--a province largely known for coal mines, a desolate landscape and abject poverty--this is a great achievement says Jao. And the fruits of their labor are wines that have gained international acclaim since emerging on the Asian market four years ago. Five-star hotels across Asia are starting to stock Grace Vineyards wine, and the company is setting up its own wine-tasting shops in cities on China's eastern seaboard. CEO Judy Lesner says her goal is to put China on the wine-making map.

Ms. LESNER: You drink wine, you can tell it's Old World or the New World American style or the Australian style or the Bordeaux or the burgundy, but ultimately, we hope that people will try our wine and can immediately tell this is such a good Chinese wine.

SCHMITZ: And the first Americans she wants to convince are ones who are pretty discriminating about their wine. Starting this coming year, Grace Vineyard will begin to distribute its wine in California. Reporting from Shaanxi province, China, I'm Rob Schmitz.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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